Monday, April 14, 2014

Personal Transformation for Average Students - A Hypothetical

Can average students be remade into deep learners through a regime that aims to alter their habits of mind, in addition to teaching them specific subject matter?  I submit that we don't know the answer to this question.  The hypothetical presented in what follows is meant not so much as a program to jump into (since it is highly idiosyncratic to me - my strengths, my competencies, and my views about teaching) as it is intended to provoke others to ask what like programs might be done to get at an answer to this question. 

Before going further, let's suppose that we learn the answer to the question is yes, it can be done, but the costs are quite high to achieve that end.  The following question then becomes operative.  Whose call is it to make whether to incur those costs or not?  I will give an idealistic answer here, based on the current University of Illinois Strategic Plan.  Goal two is to provide transformative learning experiences.  That should be for all students.  Then, in the Principles part of the plan, there are multiple lines about keeping tuition from exploding.  Taken together this means that either taxpayers or donors have to want to incur these costs, so indirectly it is their call, one that the rest of the community embraces.  In the rest of this piece, I'm going to assume that support will be forthcoming.  Otherwise, why stir up trouble with this sort of investigation?

There is a puzzle to be solved by any successful intervention.  Deep learners are largely self-directed in their learning, even when taking classes.  The instructor may provide launch points, via the choice of readings, topics emphasized in lecture, and the assignments given.  The student is grateful for being provided with them and considers all of these.  But then the baton passes to the student who explores the subject in the student's own manner, who makes up further questions to be answered as early ideas are discovered, and who is largely unconcerned with grades in the entire process.  The inquiry itself is its own reward.  Average students are much more externally directed, will do what they think they are being told but not venture beyond that, and are extraordinarily concerned with grades as passport to whatever good things come after school. The puzzle is how via external direction average students can be encouraged to be internally directed about their own learning.

I have a better sense of what won't work than what will, based on my teaching experience.  Since the mid 1990s I have tried many different interventions at the course level aimed at getting students to learn better.  Sometimes these have had positive effect that were evident to me.  Yet none, taken individually or in combination, have led to the type of personal transformation I asked about in the opening question.  None of the interventions have been sufficiently intensive to achieve that.

It is pretty easy to understand why.  Students are taking on average four other courses.  If those other courses encourage the student to act in an externally directed manner that is a much larger force in favor of stasis.  Further, since now I teach upper level courses rather than freshman classes, the students have had substantial reinforcement for an externally directly approach before I get to see them in my class.  Much of the behavior I witness in my students comes from habits developed in taking these earlier courses.

This suggests what is needed is a substantial curricular innovation that happens quite early in the students' college experience. I experienced the requisite intensity twice as a student.

The first time was a six weeks math summer program at Hampshire College that I attended between my junior and senior years in high school.  My recollection of the experience is imperfect but it went something like this.  We had three hours of class each morning.  For the first four weeks (out of six) I was in a class on number theory and group theory taught by Marty Arkowitz.  We were given rather extensive homework to do each day.  After lunch there was time either for R&R, for me that mainly meant playing tennis, or for working on the homework.  At 5:17 (1717 in military time, the number 17 figured prominently as a symbol of our nerd behavior) there was a theorem given for the entire program by the director, David C. Kelley.  After dinner there was a regular volleyball game, some socializing, and possibly more work on homework.  That was Monday - Friday.  On the weekends there were often field trips.  I recall one to Tanglewood that was delightful and another one, hiking in the Berkshires, that I found rather dreadful.  If memory serves we also saw a Red Sox game on a different weekend.

A few years back Kelley made an inquiry to alums from the program about the impact the experience had.  I wrote a long missive back.  The following is an excerpt from that which shows that in spite of the intensity, the program in itself was not personally transformative.

My take aways from that at this point are first some factoids - a linkage between Mersenne Primes and Perfect Numbers, though I'd have to look it up to recall the exact relation - 945 is the smallest odd abundant number - and some stuff about Cosets. The larger lessons were two. There were students who were much brighter than I was or much further along than I was at approximately the same age, a very useful thing to discover early on in life. In addition to Paul, Marcia and Henry were in this category. One day I recall Henry doing a proof of his own result in the front of the room. I had no clue what he was talking about. (Along with the intelligence there was the ego part of this and Hampshire was my first experience of ego battles by bright students showing off.) The other lesson was that things could get hard and that I needed some mechanism of ratcheting up my own thinking to manage that. I didn't have it at Hampshire. I developed something of that sort as a junior in College, but not completely then. More of that happened in grad school. In Marty's group I believe the first two weeks or so went reasonably well for me but then I sort of hit a wall and I didn't know what to do about it. I floundered in his group after that.

This issue of "a student hitting a wall" and what to do about it is a big one.  Any limited duration program that is intensive will have to squarely confront the issue. 

The other experience was my first year in graduate school at Northwestern.  The doctoral program in economics was quite intensive.  This time I experienced personal transformation.  But many of my classmates did not and the experience for them was quite brutal.  Indeed, Robert Eisner's macroeconomics class the very first quarter bore some similarity to Kingsfield's contract law class in The Paper Chase.  Aside from many of my classmates hitting a wall intellectually, it turned out there was inadequate funding to support us all on fellowship the second year.  I initially thought my fellowship was guaranteed as long as I was a student in good standing.  Apparently not.  The scarce funding led to competition among the students that increased the brutality of that first year and in my mind did nothing to contribute to the learning.

Undergraduate Engineering education has a reputation for being brutal in this sense.  Many students wash out.  At Illinois, those students are fortunate to be able to transfer to other colleges on campus.  A survival of the fittest approach might produce personal transformation in a few of the middle tier economics students, but at what sort of batting average?  And then what of the students who wash out?

I have also experienced this sort of intensity in an adult education context both as an attendee, The Frye Leadership Institute (now Leading Change Institute), and as a provider, Faculty Summer Institute where I was the Head Facilitator for the first ten years, and in the Educause Institute - Learning Technology Leadership Program where I was one of the faculty for three years. These were different to my student experiences in several respects.  The attendees were mid career professionals, so much more rooted in their work. The duration was less, not quite a fortnight in the case of Frye, a work week in the case of FSI and LTL.  And essentially all the work done outside of plenary session was in groups.  Further, in LTL in particular, there was monitoring of the group work by the faculty so nobody would go over the deep end.  I have a sense that these experiences were largely successful (I wrote about the first LTL experience voicing that opinion) with the impact as much emotional as intellectual, maybe more so.

In the program I suggest below there is a hybrid design based on these experiences and on what I've learned from my teaching.

* * * * *

Two issues need to be addressed before getting to the program itself.  I want to take those seriously here.  A third issue arises that I will simply wave my hands at, but mention here so it is understood that with any real intervention this issue will have to be dealt with seriously as well.

The first is how to identify the students.  Intensive interventions typically appeal to elite students, but they are not the intended audience.  We're looking for average students who don't know they should be seeking personal transformation in college but are not a priori negatively disposed to the idea when it is brought to their attention.  It is hard to envision a non-coercive way to select those students who are negatively disposed.  For those who are already positively disposed to the idea, one expects that they are the better students who don't require this sort of intervention.   The ones in neutral who are invited to participate will need some sort of inducement.  That may create its own selection bias.  C'est la vie.  Purely random selection violates human subject protocols.

The second issue is when the intervention should occur.  Candidates are a summer intervention, perhaps between the senior year in high school and the first semester of college, or during the first semester in college, when the intervention would have to substitute for the talking of regular classes.  An add on in addition to regular classes during that first semester couldn't possibly be intensive enough.  A summer intervention might ultimately prove desirable and popular, especially if the various experiments that this post is supposed to engender generate positive results.  But in the experimental phase it might be perceived as a cost add to attending students and their families. (Whether it is or not depends ultimately on the time to degree.  If the students can cut off a semester during their senior year because of that leading summer, then there really wouldn't be a cost add.  Yet who will know this in advance?)  For this reason, the envisioned program is taken to happen in the fall semester of the first year.

The third issue is how to go from a collection of courses taught in that first semester to a single program that is perceived holistically and what institutional barriers must be broken through to attain that goal.  One conception would be a set of Discovery classes that the students would take in lock step and where the instructors had done substantial coordination via pre-planning and subsequent activities that entailed all of them ensemble.  This conception speaks to the expense of the intervention.  It also suggests the actual program would emerge from an extended negotiation by these instructors, the outcome of which is hard to anticipate in advance.  An alternative is for a single instructor to teach all of these courses, but to fewer students so as to keep the effort from being too overwhelming.  That instructor must then have a vision of what the program would be like.  On the bureaucratic side, permission would have to be granted by the departments who normally offer these courses when, as typically would be the case, that solo instructor is not a department member. The permission would assert that this program is indeed a worthy substitute for the offered course so students should receive credit for it.  As I said, here I'm just going to wave my hands about this issue.

The program I have in mind entails four real courses and one fictitious course, which I will explain momentarily.  The four courses are: (1) principles of microeconomics, (2) calculus of a single variable, (3) the first required writing course, and (4) learning and memory.  Of these, the first three are general education courses.  The fourth is offered as a mid level psychology course.  It's inclusion here is to make the students study their own learning and do so part and parcel with everything else they are studying.  The fictitious course I'll call Intervention.  It is there for two reasons. First, each of the listed real courses carries 3 credit hours and I want the program to be 16 credit hours, to convey the requisite intensity.  The program will meet two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch Monday through Thursday.  With a little arithmetic, one can see we need an additional four credit hours and the fictitious course supplies that.  Also, credit in Intervention will be given only to students in this program.  So it can be used as an identifier in the student transcript when comparing subsequent performance with other like students who have not had Intervention.  That would provide one sort of metric on whether the program was successful.

My certified expertise is in economics and my undergraduate degree is in math.  I have taught principles of microeconomics before and I believe the undergraduate degree sufficient to claim expertise for teaching calculus.  But I've never taken a psychology class and I stopped taking English after my senior year in high school.  I have acquired knowledge in these areas mainly since I became interested in learning technology.  That began in 1995 after I had been at Illinois for fifteen years by then. Both subjects remain as ongoing areas of interest even now.  I believe I would do better in teaching writing and learning to my students than I would do in teaching math and economics, because I would take a "natural approach" to the former based on my own self-discovery, while I'm prone to take a more formal approach to the latter given the disciplinary training I've had.  My recent teaching suggests this.  It is how others should consider a program such as this.  If other research faculty after reading this piece find they are inclined to try a similar program, they likely will encounter the same sort of issue.  I would encourage such efforts though, as I said above, the bureaucracy likely would hold them back. 

The aim would be to have 4 or 5 students in the program.  By my count, that would produce either 64 or 80 "instructional units" (IUs are the product of credit hours and number of students enrolled) and therefore be comparable in production to my teaching last fall where I had 23 students and produced 70 IUs (one student was a grad, which counts for 4 credit hours instead of 3).  The reason for this sizing, apart from not over taxing me as the instructor, is the need to monitor each student on a daily basis for how the student is doing - whether insufficiently stimulated or hitting a wall or more or less properly engaged.  While the goal is to keep the group in lock step, there is also a need to coach at the individual level to get the student to rise and meet the next challenge.  This is what will generate the intensity.  It simply can't be done with large numbers of students.

Students would get credit for the program as long as they demonstrated sufficient effort.  This would translate into a satisfactory grade for each of the component courses.  There would be no letter grades.  The idea here is to explicitly lessen the impact of extrinsic motivation and get the students to see what it feels like when they get intense feedback from the instructor but no letter grade.  Ultimately the goal will be for the students to provide the feedback for themselves about their own performance as part of being self-directed in their learning.  Let them first see what feedback feels like when it comes from an interested outsider.  There is also an aspect of insurance to this approach.  The experiment with this program might fail completely.  In this case the students will remain externally directed thereafter and will pursue their studies accordingly.  The students should be held harmless grade-wise if this is the outcome, as long as they have put in solid effort during the program.

Students would be recruited for the program from among those who have been admitted as econ majors or are undeclared in their major but have indicated an interest in economics.  Among this population one wants students who haven't already placed out of the required courses that are part of the program.  One also wants middle students.  If one arrayed this entire population by standardized test scores, for example, one would want to recruit from the middle two quartiles.

The obvious carrot offered in such recruiting is the high degree of interaction with the instructor that results from having only 5 students.  The obvious stick is that these students will be expected to work quite hard and be under substantial scrutiny to ensure that outcome.  Students who will be living away from home for the first time may very well not want that scrutiny and prefer the freedom to decide their own academic commitment for themselves.  There may also be indirect penalties from participating in the program.  For example, many econ majors are business major wannabes.  Transferring into the College of Business is a difficult thing and typically require very good grades during the first year.   With the program offering no grades whatsoever, that may make these students look less attractive than their peers who did well in regular courses.  Potential recruits need to be made aware of these sort of issues ahead of time.

The students who do apply for the program should do so knowing the program description and understanding both the upside and the downside.  It is hoped that this would generate at least 5 applicants.  (I believe there are around 225 new Econ majors each year.)  Assuming there were more applicants than that other criteria would need to be used to select the 5 who get admitted to the program.  One idea would be for the students to appear academically similar in their preparation.  So if there were several applicants near the 50th percentile and one or two near the 70th percentile the former would be preferred.  This would facilitate keeping the class in lock step.  Given that, diversity of the students in their backgrounds would also be a plus.  For example, I'd prefer to have two students of one gender and three of the other to either four-one or five-zero. 

* * * * *

In this section of the essay I'd like to talk about the habits/ways-of-going-about-things we'd like to see cultivated in the students and the methods by which that might be achieved.

Normally, I abhor lists but here I think it useful to organize ideas. So I will list the big picture goals that I envision.

  • Personal Commitment - When I started the graduate program at Northwestern I told myself I'd give it my all for one quarter before beginning to ask myself whether I like studying economics and is doing so suitable for me.  Before the end of that quarter I was already hooked on the economics and understood that an intensive effort on my part was the only way I'd learn economics deeply.  The undergrads in this program must make a similar promise, both to themselves and to the program.  They must not question the effort level if the work is do-able given the effort level.  They may reasonably question assigned work that is over their head even when putting in maximum effort or for which the volume required is clearly excessive.  Alas, the only way to determine the latter is for the students to monitor their own time input and such monitoring can preclude engagement.  So the hope is to encourage the commitment via carrots and making the initial experience enjoyable.  This speaks to the next point.
  • Intellectual Play - Much of the ensemble time needs to be spent on generating questions and then using discovery methods into providing tentative answers.  Generating questions is fun.  Going on an exploration is fun.  Trying out possibilities is fun.  Guessing at which possibilities to try first is more fun.  The students are econ majors.  Why?  Is there anything about how the world works that they don't currently understand but would like to know?  Why?  How might they go about knowing it?  Do they have some dreams of how that would happen?  What would get the students to open up and talk about those dreams?  Play needs a climate of trust.  The students need to become unguarded during the ensemble time.  The early part of the program must be devoted to creating the right sort of environment.
  • The Reading Habit - Students must learn to read a lot, to read for meaning, and to read not just what is assigned but enough other things so they have a good picture of the ideas they are reading about.  They must be able to take well written pieces aimed at a general audience and reconcile the message in those pieces with their own world view.  Reading is not just getting what the author says but also testing whether what the author says is something the reader agrees with or not.  What things are used for corroboration and what other things are used to dispute the author's point?  These things must be found, either in what the student already knows or in something the student discovers.
  • Getting Unstuck/Being Bothered Intellectually - Learning entails a lot of stumbles: misconceptions may precede good understanding, having no idea whatsoever on how to address a question, or making a foolish mistake and then basing subsequent ideas on that shaky foundation.  The emotional response to such situations is equally as important as the intellectual one.  Students must learn how to deal with their emotions when all is not flowing well.  The initial response might well be panic, because there is an inappropriate expectation that all will be done quickly.  The real issue is to produce a mature response thereafter.  Does the student understand the question being asked?  Is there a way to frame the same question differently so the student might make some progress on it?   Can the student let go of this and get onto something else?  Letting go should be very hard.  Students should learn to feel they have it in them to answer the question and also feel it imperative to do so.
  • Drill Down and Seeing the Forest - Sometimes there is one correct way at looking at things.  But other times, and specifically in considering social science issues many of the times are these other times, the same issue needs to be considered in excruciating detail, on the one hand, and then again at the 60,000 foot level, where it is aggregated in with a bunch of related issues.  Students need to be able to do both.  When drilling down they need to understand why the detail is interesting and they need to have a feel for what questions to ask that might reveal interesting detail to look at.  They also need to understand the big picture and how the piece they've been focusing on fits.  The zooming in and zooming out are both necessary and reflects a more mature understanding than can be achieved by only one or the other. 
  • Making Formative Ideas Overt - Let's first consider writing.  Many students operate under the impression that thinking happens first, over here, and then the results are written up afterward, over there.  They are unaware of the power of writing to learn, where writing itself is used as the means to explore the ideas further.  This blog post, long as it is, provides an example.  The ideas are formative and surely could stand improvement.  The piece suggests where my thinking is now, not where it will eventually end up, after getting the reaction of others and some reconsideration on my own.  Students may be more used to the idea that formative ideas are expressed in discussion with others, but many classes may not encourage that sort of conversation and students might not find intellectual discussion outside a course setting.  In this program they will get a lot of it.  One hope is for them to become comfortable with a sense that their early ideas are unlike their more mature ideas.  If they are to become self-directed in their learning, a good bit of that is to want to see their ideas grow (and then have some means for doing so).  
This list of goals probably could be made longer but it is enough for this piece.  Let's proceed to a discussion of means.  The semester would be divided into thirds, about 5 weeks per.  In the first week or two the important things would be to establish a productive routine, get the students to become comfortable with that and with one another, and for them to being to establish a sense of competence in doing the work.  Much of the work would entail the making of objects - essays, presentations in PowerPoint with voice over, Excelets - Excel worksheets with numerically animated graphs to illustrate the math and the economic theory, and possibly other objects as well.  The making of the objects would be one chunk of the out of class work.  Another chunk would be a review and critique of the objects made by the others in the class.  While I'd expect me as instructor to review all the objects, students might review some subset of objects in a way that each student got such a review, ensuring that students got meaningful feedback on their work and from more than one source. The last chunk of out of class work would be reading. Readings would be selected broadly, not just from textbooks, some from contemporary periodicals, others that are well known pieces but are more dated.  The hope is that students would find much of the reading compelling, an eye opener, and make them eager for more.

In class time would prepare the students both technically and content-wise to make the next set of objects, to discuss the previous set that has been made, and to discuss the general academic themes that the objects are aimed at illustrating.  Some of the readings done, out of necessity, will have no parallel object that the students make and will simply be discussed for themselves.  After a fashion the class as a whole will try to get at the question whether the understanding of such readings differs whether there were objects assigned for the readings or not and/or whether the students come to make, implicitly or explicitly, objects for those readings to facilitate their understanding although they were not assigned to do so.

While there would be an ongoing light informal evaluation of how things were going, to make necessary tweaks in process and content and to adjust the pace of the class to match how the students seem to be doing, not until the end of the fifth week would there be a formal evaluation of what had gone before.  The formal evaluation is aimed at first, getting students to consider their learning and their effort and come to some sense of what a cost-benefit analysis would produce as a conclusion, and then to have the students consider how things have gone and compare that to the way they went about their learning in high school.  That part of the evaluation is meant to feed the middle third of the class.

In the first third the subject matter would only be economics, math, and writing.  The learning theme would be introduced in the middle third.  Two important issues would be made paramount.  The first is transfer.  What mechanism do the students opt for to achieve transfer?  (Memorization is particularly bad here as it only allows the students to reproduce the ideas as they were presented originally.  To use the ideas in a novel context requires a deeper form of understanding.)  The second is motivation.  When the program is fun, what makes for that?  What do the students look forward to?  What do they dread but they know they must do?  Why isn't that part fun?  Coupled with introducing learning into the program, the class as a whole will become involved in modest program redesign, with the aim of taking the lessons from learning and modifying program activities to make the learning better.  And some evaluation of those modifications will be done to see if things did improve, remained unchanged, or got worse.

During the last third, students would be given more freedom to read pieces of their own choosing, write on topics they found relevant, and, from time to time, where they take over direction of the class as a whole, perhaps by first making a presentation on a subject they have researched and then leading a discussion afterward.  The idea is to give more control and responsibility to each student.  I have done this sort of thing in the past in teaching campus honors classes, where the students giving the presentation did so as a group.  Here because of the small numbers, I'd expect each student to do this individually, aided by my coaching.  It is meant as a push toward self-direction with the learning.

While the formal program is meant to happen entirely during that first semester, to help the students in the subsequent semester adjust to taking regular classes and yet to continue to practice the deep learning ideas they got in the previous semester, one hour per week should be set aside for the group to meet and discuss what is going on.  As this would not be for credit it would not be possible to make those meetings mandatory, but they should be strongly encouraged.  If the students prefer to meet without the instructor present, that would be fine.  And if individual students would prefer one-on-one meetings with the instructor on an as needed basis, mentoring is not otherwise a part of undergraduate instruction, that should be available too.

In this regard I'd like to note here that when I started at Northwestern in grad school I felt disadvantaged relative to my classmates, because I didn't major in economics as an undergraduate and felt under prepared as a consequence.  It took some time for me to compensate for those shortcomings in economics preparation and to also realize that my math preparation, which was better than what my classmates had as undergraduates, was ultimately more important than the economics preparation.  I suspect something similar will happen with this program, if it is successful.  Having completed the program the students may feel disadvantaged relative to their classmates, because they haven't yet experienced what taking a large lecture class is like while their classmates have.  I hope they come to the same sort of conclusion that I did, that their preparation from participating in the program is ultimately more valuable to them and that they end up learning more as a consequence.  I don't know if that learning more will immediately show up in good performance on exams.  If not, my hope is that it will show up in course grades down the road, and in non-graded learning situations thereafter. 

* * * * *

If the program were modestly successful, either a few students were transformed while others were not or the students were in some gray area where the outcome could not be determined with any certainty, I probably would want to try it again.  The hope would be to learn from my mistakes and see if I could improve performance the next time.  If the program were highly successful, I probably would not want to try again and instead move entirely into proselytize mode and encourage others to try it.  The program is meant as a proof of concept.  Once the concept is demonstrated to be plausible next steps need to be taken.

It is easy to write the previous paragraph.  This one is harder.  If the program were a complete failure - all the students dropped out after a few weeks because it was just too intensive for them without them finding suitable rewards to match the intensity, or the students stuck it out but collectively forced me to teach in a way that I was sure wouldn't be transformative by threatening to drop out otherwise - I would become very depressed indeed.  I might then abandon my interest in undergraduate education, for the experiment would have demonstrated that the profound change I want to see is not attainable, at least not by methods I can envision.   I view this outcome as unlikely.  But unlikely is not the same as impossible.  I wonder who else might be interested in this sort of experiment and what their expectations would be regarding outcomes.

Let me conclude here by noting that in its imagery associated with the Strategic Plan there is a tendency for the Campus to: (a) focus on non-course experiences such as internships or working in a faculty member's lab, (b) concentrate on experience in the STEM disciplines, and (c) emphasize the accomplishments of the best students.  It seems to me there are interesting and legitimate questions that need to be asked: (d) Can courses themselves be transformative? (e) What of the many students who major in the social sciences? and (f) What are we doing for more typical students regarding personal transformation? 

I hope others can take up these questions as well.  They are questions that need answers.

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